The If Project, helping to change the lives of women offenders and at-risk youth, co-sponsored a special preview of Seattle Public Theater's 'This Wide Night' behind prison walls.
Lorraine, in the play This Wide Night, has just been released from a British prison. She knocks at the door of her former cellmate Marie, who got out some time ago and has been living in a shabby, cramped city flat. When the women were behind bars they were close friends despite their age difference (Lorraine is 50, Marie 30), but now that each is free at last, what's the point of reconnecting?
Marie isn’t doing as well outside as she had proudly predicted, and had stopped visiting her former friend inside. Lorraine is feeling unmoored, overwhelmed, and anxious about finding a job and a place to live instead of the supervised hostel where she has a transitional bed. She's also half-frantic at the looming prospect of seeing her adult son after their long estrangement.
Should Marie risk disrupting the fragile, sorry routine that keeps her afloat despite its dangers? How can Lorraine build a new life if she merely sinks into her old obsession with mothering Marie?
The play foregrounds many of the larger issues addressed by a unique local nonprofit that co-sponsored a preview performance of the play at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor last week. The preview was brought there in recognition of the reality that a formerly imprisoned woman reentering society faces special challenges. At WCCW the stage set — Marie’s “bed-sit” — was only a space in front of the visiting-room toilets. But the drama was so gripping it was easy to ignore potential distractions, including the reality that Marie’s sofa-bed was a row of folding metal chairs, and a quart of booze was for security purposes only a plastic water bottle labeled with VODKA scrawled on a scrap of paper.
The collaboration that brought the preview to WCCW began with conversations between Shana Bestock, artistic director at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse, and Kim Bogucki, Seattle Police Department detective and co-founder of The If Project, a nonprofit that aims to steer youth and women away from involvement in crime. A discussion with the actors after the performance at the prison drew the WCCW audience into the collaboration, their comments prompting the director to make notes about lines and timing. The ripples will keep widening. Inmates returned to their cells that night to start writing about the play and their lives in essays that Bestock will post in the Bathhouse theater lobby.
During the discussion a woman told the actors, “You were so standoffish with each other, like my kids when they come to visit. They don't want to tell you what's really going on.” Another inmate said through her tears, “You both shut yourselves down. I do that. We’re in prison. We’re supposed to be rocks.” A woman in the back row agreed: “In prison you’re in protection mode. If you allow yourself to feel, … well, just look around!” (Hardly an eye in the room was dry.) “You could break down.”
The world outside, too, weighed on the women's minds. “My son — after 12 years, will he want to see me? Will there be jobs? It’s a lot to step out into.” “In here, no matter what, you belong. Out there…” Other voices picked up the trailing thread: “What will it be like to walk into someplace where they think I'm a piece of shit?” “You end up doing what you know how to do: prostitution, drugs, paper crimes.” “In here is the best life I’ve ever known.” “Get out and have all those choices? Send me back!”
Then the summing-up: “You made our life real.” “You were telling my story.” “Can our families and friends go see this play?” “These are our real struggles.”
For four years The If Project has been asking women in prison, “If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?” The women’s responses are videotaped, and detective Bogucki, together with a team of former inmates, uses the videos in workshops with Seattle's at-risk youth. “The women aren’t getting paid for this,” said Bogucki. “They do it to give back, to help some child from going the same way.”
In one videotape a woman in the 11th year of a 36-year sentence looks into the eyes of youngsters who will someday watch her answer the “If” question: “If I were to dare tell somebody or even myself [about] my abandonment issues, then that would have given somebody permission to help me.... If someone would have told me that I was more than the emotions I was feeling, I believe that would have made a difference.”
Before showing the video in project workshops, Bogucki tells kids she's a police officer and introduces her team, saying, “It's not the police against the convicts. Here are cops and former inmates. How can we help you make some changes?” An important change might just be getting better grades.
So the project is not just for juveniles in detention, said Bogucki. “It’s equally important to go into a regular classroom and get that kid, the one who we don’t know is going down the wrong path, thinking.” Truant youngsters leave the workshops with three personal goals they’ve written down for themselves. Project leaders and referring adults keep a copy so that kids will know their plans are taken seriously. “A kid will call us up a couple years later and say 'Hey, I graduated!'”
Bogucki also started a monthly program at WCCW that includes writing workshops. “I don’t want to negate the fact that there are victims out there who have suffered at the hands of these women,” she said. “But the women involved in The If Project have a lot of remorse. We don’t get the ones that are still knuckleheads.”
How can we in the larger society help move the work of Bogucki and her team forward? First, the detective said, we need to remember that most of these women will eventually return from prison to society. “And a huge difference between male and female offenders is, the women get out and the kids are dropped in their laps. Some males end up with the kids, yes, but society-wise we tend to put that on the mother.” If we have no employment programs for these women, they're likely to fall back on doing what got them into trouble in the first place. “Their kids will suffer, we’ll be victims again, and taxpayers will keep on paying,” said Bogucki. “Each prisoner cost us $42,000 last year.”
She also stressed that the fates of incarcerated parents’ children and other at-risk kids can’t be left to the justice system. “The number one problem for these kids is no positive role models. So step up and mentor,” or support mentoring organizations that are “really into doing what they do,” not just going through the motions.
Playwright Chloë Moss based This Wide Night on the real-life stories of inmates at a prison in England whom she met while leading workshops for Clean Break, an outreach program of education and theater in the United Kingdom that equips incarcerated women with skills for post-prison life. Moss's fine play, deceptively simple but deep, and blessedly free of preachy messages, premiered in London in 2008. In 2009 it won the Susan Smith Blackburn Playwriting Prize, and in 2010 it had a much-praised off-Broadway run starring Edie Falco and Alison Pill.
This moving play opens next week at Seattle Public Theatre at the Bathhouse, under the smart, crisply unsentimental orchestration of director Sheila Daniels. The often comic repartee of a pair of outcasts in bleak surroundings, waiting for something definitive and life-changing to happen and falling into silences that threaten to open up a vast and terrifying emptiness, invites comparisons with Beckett. But the erratic current that flows between the women, driving them apart when it doesn't sweep them into collisions, is warm. The disreputable, deadpan wit of Lorraine (played by Christina Mastin) is laced with affection, and Marie (Emily Chisholm) embodies both frozen trauma and fullness of soul.
If you go: This Wide Night has its West Coast premiere at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse on Green Lake, May 18-June 10. There will be special post-performance Talk Backs with The If Project and St. Vincent De Paul on May 18, May 31, and June 3, and Talk Backs with director and cast following the shows on May 26, 27, and 31. Tickets here; $20-29 for adults; discounts for seniors and youth (65 and older; under 25).